The Fonterra contamination scandal has highlighted a serious weakness in the New Zealand brand. Negative commentary, at home and overseas, has concentrated on the perception that the brand promise of 100% Pure has somehow been broken.
Yet, as many commentators have pointed out, 100% Pure was only ever a tourism slogan. In that role it has performed well. It is distinctive, memorable, still fresh, and adaptable to many tourism experiences.
So why, during this recent crisis, did this tourism slogan become the dominating feature of the broader New Zealand brand? The answer can only be that the overall New Zealand brand, as a country, is weak and indistinct.
A strong brand should have many dimensions, linked together by consistent, distinctive brand assets. This was clearly not the case here. 100% Pure, a tourism slogan, became spuriously identified as the New Zealand brand, even though it was never intended to cover areas such as environmental standards or food quality.
How could this spurious association have been avoided? The answer is to have a stronger country brand, with a broader set of associations backed by distinctive brand assets that are unique and easily noticed. These would help people to structure their thinking about the brand, and to avoid any one attribute becoming over-important.
Any brand that concentrates on one or two specific associations will be vulnerable, as there will be nothing to interfere with a negative evaluation on that association flowing straight through to the core concept.
However, if the brand associations are broader, there will be competition for attention from other positive associations, and these will reduce the effect of the negative event. That is, if you think New Zealand is independent and honest, these attributes will compete for attention and so concerns about food safety will be less likely to be encoded in memory.
A broad range of associations is important, but a strong brand also requires the consistent promotion and use of distinctive brand assets that help people to recognise your brand, and to bring to mind the things they already know about. These assets might be logos, typefaces, colours, characters, or even stories.
The Michelin man, the Nike swoosh, the M&M characters, Cadbury's purple, even the BNZ font are all examples. The role of these distinctive brand assets is partly to be noticeable and recognisable, but they also help to engage brain processing mechanisms associated with rich visual content, social interaction, or the human penchant for narrative. These are sometimes called neuro-rich stimuli.
Unfortunately, the New Zealand brand falls at the first hurdle - consistency. Are we the Silver Fern? The Kiwi? The Koru? The All Blacks? These are all strong sub-brands and distinctive assets, but like 100% Pure, they do not necessarily belong to the country brand.
We don't seem to have an integrating principle, or a clear idea about the values that are represented by each of these individual brand assets. Further, our brand values are unclear. Do we want to tell the world that we are clean and green? Tough? Honest? A nice place to live? Innovative? It's not terribly clear.
The New Zealand brand also falls at the second hurdle - distinctiveness. For those from other parts of the world, how are we different from Australia? Our flag is a major branding problem.
No one would suggest a flag should be chosen for purely expedient reasons, yet it is worth noting that the primary feature of any brand should be that it is unique. Our flag is not. Compare this with the Stars and Stripes, the Maple Leaf, or the Indian Mandala.
Our flag is in effect New Zealand's logo, and in that role it does not pass muster. It simply says that we are one of several ex-British colonies. From a commercial point of view, the response would have to be - "who cares?" From a consumer point of view it would be more simple - "who?"
Branding is hard work. It takes clear analysis and good creative endeavour, but also a willingness to spend money to build a consistent set of brand messages and assets, with the determination to resist undermining the brand through regular changes of creative style. Our country branding has a long way to go.
There are good initiatives, such as the work by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise on the New Zealand story. Yet we need to ensure these stories are strong and clearly linked to consistent, presented, distinctive brand assets.
Without a clear set of broader country associations linked to neuro-rich stimuli such as colours and characters, we will continue to be vulnerable to hijack from a strong sub-brand like 100% Pure.